WASHINGTON — Growing up in a newspaper and military family, Karen King-Johnson wanted to serve her country.
In 1965, as the Vietnam War escalated, she attended Officer Candidate School and commissioned into the Army as a public affairs officer.
She said she was inspired to join the Army by her father, a World War II infantry officer who fought with Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army before being killed by a mortar blast Nov. 11, 1944.
While in Vietnam, King-Johnson served as the command information officer for the U.S. Army Vietnam in Long Binh and circulation manager for the Stars and Stripes newspaper, publishing 100,000 copies each day. She led a team of 43 enlisted photographers and combat correspondents.
She led a team that distributed the publication in five shops in Vietnam. King-Johnson and her staff also produced another publication, “The Army Reporter.” If a pallet didn’t get delivered, she and her team personally delivered it via a helicopter.
“We were in the field every day, taking pictures and riding with the units,” she said. “Two of my guys are on the Vietnam Wall [Memorial].”
King-Johnson and her staff often embedded with U.S. troops in the field and worked with civilian media. They escorted dozens of media, including legendary American reporter Walter Cronkite.
“We flew almost everywhere we went, and I had a jeep with a [.50-caliber] machine gun,” she said. “There were 754 correspondents in Vietnam. Our job was to escort them safely in and out. We were out in the field, delivering papers. If troops were moving, we were moving.”
They also dealt with logistical challenges in the field. King-Johnson and her staff wore 75-pound wet cell pack radios on their backs that weighed 75 pounds to sustain battery life.
“The radio had to have a 10-foot antenna on it,” she said. “I had a clip on the back of my helmet so it wouldn’t hit me in the head. The young guys would climb the trees and get the antennas up higher so we could communicate with the Air Force. We didn’t want [enemy forces] dropping bombs on us.”
She said they had to “shoot, scoot and communicate.”
“Our job was to make sure everybody back home knew what the guys were doing over there and tell their stories, to make sure no one was forgotten,” she said.
She served in Vietnam with back-to-back tours from 1970 to 1972.
“The VC [Viet Cong] would try to come over the wires at night. They’d turn our ammo around against us, the mortars we had on the outer fence. If we ran out, then they blow back on us. We had to get smart about that,” she said. “They attacked at night.”
Her cousin was a medical evacuation helicopter pilot who flew night and day. He was shot down in 1968. The POW/MIA team is still looking for his remains.
From medical evacuation pilots to nurses to infantrymen, everyone loved the newspapers. If people didn’t get the paper, she heard about it from the three-star general down.
“Everybody loved us,” she said. “We were their favorite thing. They liked us better than food trucks with hot meals. We always gave them extra film. We were using 35-milimeter. My guys would take pictures, and they’d send the extra photos home to their parents. They thought we were great.”
When she returned from Vietnam, she served at Army Recruiting Command and then at Army Training and Doctrine Command, writing field manuals like her father. While there, she met her husband, who served in the Air Force as a Titan II missile commander but retired from the Army and became a federal judge.
King-Johnson, who retired as a major, said she highly recommends serving in the military to the next generation. She said the military provides unique professional training experiences.
“Name a commercial pilot that didn’t get their training in the military,” she said. “You can get so much on-the-job training for free. There are so many different career fields. They’re doing sub training; you’re not going to do that anywhere else in the world. I’m amazed that the American people don’t know what their military does. The military is decades ahead in planning. They knew they were going into the Middle East back when I was in Vietnam.”